A love letter to a direct response print ad


The day is January 4, the first workday of 2016. It’s 9:30 am and I’ve mercifully found a seat on Hong Kong’s ever-crowded MTR. It’ll be about 20 minutes to get from Sheung Wan to Quarry Bay so I have some time to kill. I pull out my tablet and open the digitized National Geographic magazine. This month’s issue is about National Parks. Sounds relaxing.

The train gently bounces and grinds along its tracks. People get on and off at the big stops. I ignore them. All I see are short stories about African prison camps and the functions of differently shaped butterfly wings.

And then I stop.

I’m fixed on a long-form, full-page advertisement for a watch. About a third of the page is devoted to the product itself, The Stauer Urban Blue. The rest is text—a full-on sales pitch on the merits of this watch and why I should buy it immediately. I don’t think the watch is particularly attractive, but I admit that it is visually arresting. This clearly isn’t an ad for me, but it has a certain magic that gives me pause.

The ad, in all its glory
The ad, in all its glory

The Generation Y digital native I look at every morning in the mirror screams at me: What garbage! After all, it breaks all the new rules of marketing: It’s long. It’s dense. It’s a hard sell. The headline is corny. It throws every promotional tactic at the reader and then some. It’s the direct response ad to end all direct response ads.

But I love this ad. I love it because there’s a lot to learn from it.


In Defense of the Hard Sell

Truth be told, I’ve always had a soft spot for these sorts of ads even before I entered the industry. Unlike the majority of advertisements of the digital age, hard selling ads make no excuses for what they are. One moment you’re reading about endangered whales, and the next you’re reading about why you’d be a fool not to buy this handsome blue wristwatch.

Print ads like this are a rare breed, and they belong to a family of marketing tactics which I admire for their directness (which makes sense considering they’re called “direct response” ads): Promotional eDM’s. Direct Mailers. Infomercials. Advertorials. None of them truly operate under the modern concept of content marketing, nor do they need to. They presume an already interested audience and in doing so, get right to the point. This doesn’t mean they ignore emotion though. Quite the contrary!

The Ronco Rotisserie and BBQ infomercial is a good example of a purposeful piece of marketing that works only because its audience comes to the table with at least a mild willingness to hear a sales pitch. And for his part, Ron Popeil puts on a good show, mixing enthusiasm, product features and an endearingly excited audience into a product that all leads to closing the sales loop.  The lyrical repetition of “set it and forget it!” is enough to keep one up at night.

Comparatively, the Stauer print ad is much simpler, but it manages to do a lot of interesting things on a single page. It’s tempting to view this ad as an amateur marketing manager’s insane attempt to move product; it would clearly give a creative director a heart attack. But I’d argue that this ad is actually well crafted for its purpose and deserves a closer examination.

1. Layout


The layout of this ad is its opening gambit, quickly sorting its audience
The layout of this ad is its opening gambit, quickly sorting its audience


The layout of this ad is fairly typical for its type. About 40% of the vertical space is devoted to a picture of the product itself (A), which serves as a quick segregation for the audience. As watches are primarily fashion accessories, no amount of salesmanship copy will convince someone who thinks that the watch is ugly to go ahead and buy it.

If the look is appealing however, the audience is immediately drawn to the dense body copy with sales points (B). Even if the audience is on the fence about the product, it is at least visually interesting enough to potentially push people into sales territory. The selection of a blue-faced product on a light brown background creates dramatic contrast. Blue is used elsewhere within the text to highlight key selling points (which we will discuss).

Lastly, because this ad sits in a text-heavy publication, the barrier to entry to read the ad text is relatively low compared to online or OOH mediums. The fact that at first glance it looks like another article certainly helps. This is important because Stauer’s business model is based on delivering at least half the sales pitch in its advertising materials, primarily in magazines. The second half comes with online or telephone conversion.

2. The Story

Perhaps the most interesting component of this ad is its copy direction. Once again, my Gen Y sensibilities want to cut this text to be below 140 characters and maybe include a hashtag for good measure. But good copy doesn’t draw attention to itself for its brevity.  It speaks to the target audience in a way that is persuasive, both logically and emotionally–in exactly as many words as it takes to seal the deal.


The opening paragraph leverages an emotional argument to engage readers; the following paragraphs provide the key selling points.

The emotional argument revolves around the idea that although watches are useful devices, they are prone to a certain cosmopolitanism that is unappealing and even downright un-American:

  • “Why shell out big money so some foreign company can sponsor another yacht race?” [We don’t like the way things are these days.]
  • “So while we’re busy revolutionizing the watch industry to bring you more real value, you can take your stand against overpriced watches…” [We’re taking back the industry!]
  • “Take a stand against overpriced watches in impeccable style. Call today” [Come with us and make a statement!]

The call to action isn’t “buy this watch.” It’s far more emotional. Buying this watch is a statement to the world that you’re fighting against the tide of a society going in the wrong direction. Sound familiar?

Make America Great Again

No one denies that this is a hollow message for most young people, but it’s a great one for people who remember “the simpler times”:

  • “You need a new watch… the one you are wearing was made when Nixon was in office.” [This ad isn’t for young people]
  • “…[other brands] that add zeros just because of a high falootin’ name are an insult to your logic” [Your generation has brains; also, you can use the word “falootin'” without an ounce of irony.]

The call to action is another sign that the target audience is older and more traditionally inclined. The largest call to action here is a phone number, with the website occupying a much smaller section under the company’s physical address.

Interestingly, there is a bit of copy here which actually dissuades the audience from using the website to make the purchase:

  • “Special price only for customers using the offer code versus the price on Stauer.com without your offer code.” [Make this purchase over the phone… where we can pitch you person-to-person… and maybe up/cross-sell you more stuff]

Granted, this piece of copy is in the form of a disclaimer, but it’s an interesting choice from the company’s perspective. Clearly they believe they will be able to do more with leads generated via phone calls than online, because there is a sales agent on the other end of the line. In addition, if our audience is as old as we think they are, then they are not digital natives. They may not be as comfortable buying products online as they are over the phone.

The rest of the copy deals with specific product benefits and leverages authority figures and testimonials to support its cause:

Despite the copy's conviction that the watch industry is plagued by too much luxury, it is more than willing to draw on industry authority to make the claim that blue is very stylish.
Despite the copy’s conviction that the watch industry is plagued by too much luxury, it is more than willing to draw on industry authority to make the claim that blue is very stylish. This claim may help diminish fears that a non-traditional blue face will be obsolete in a few years.


Testimonials provide social proof that the product quality is guaranteed. They are the old school equivalent of Amazon ads. By themselves, they are not particularly effective (after all, they could be cherry-picked statements from customers), but as part of the total package, testimonials reinforce the main argument.
Testimonials provide social proof that the product quality is guaranteed. They are the old school equivalent of Amazon reviews. By themselves, they are not particularly effective (after all, they could be cherry-picked statements from customers), but as part of the total package, testimonials reinforce the main message.


The final interesting feature of the copy is its repetition. Not only are the key selling points clearly reiterated in bullet-point form at the bottom of the ad (perhaps employed to catch a casual reader’s eye who may have ignored the key visual at the top), but the copy’s key message is also repeated relentlessly over its few paragraphs. “Take a stand” is the key message and that’s what the author wants the audience to take away.

For better or worse, the copy tells a compelling story to a specific audience and gives them the best possible way of completing the sales cycle.

Not everything is perfect though. If there’s one thing this ad gets wrong, it’s the headline:


There’s a strange disparity between the visual, the headline and the body copy. The visual and the headline match in terms of the “blue” and “face” puns, but there are two problems:

  1. Being blue in the face is not a good thing unless you love being choked (hey, I’m not here to judge)
  2. The headline does not match the copy at all.

The second point is critical because the entire sales pitch is predicated on a very clear argument: you don’t have to buy an over-priced (foreign) watch to get style and quality. The headline is probably referring to other over-priced watches, but headlines should generally address whatever the key visual is. There’s too much confusion.

The headline is a misstep considering the repetition of “take a stand” throughout the body. While it appears in the sub-headline, it’s not obvious enough. Then again, when I first read this ad, I actually skipped the headline entirely. The product picture was enough to push me into the body copy where all the interesting product features are.

3. The Tactics

Sprinkled throughout this ad are clever tactics that reinforce concepts such as incentives, exclusivity and authority.

The incentive here, a free pair of sunglasses, is here to help “sweeten the pot” and potentially help drive purchase from gift-buyers. It’s not hard to imagine Ms. Gretchen Bund thinking about what to buy her husband for his 65th birthday. She thinks he might like the watch, but knows he needs a pair of sunglasses. The inclusion of the sunglasses helps mitigate buyer risk, especially if there are questions about suitability or quality.

For $49 (plus shipping and processing) I get a watch that sticks it to foreigners and a free pair of sunglasses? Sign me up!



Cynics need not apply however, as more discriminating consumers should fairly ask how Stauer could possibly make any money by selling a $300 combo at a 83% discount. It seems likely that the total package is actually worth far less than that, but… it’s such a good deal! What do I have to lose?

Exclusivity is another psychological trigger that often pops up in direct, hard-sale marketing techniques. In Robert B. Cialdini’s Influence he presents compelling evidence that persuasion can be dramatically more effective if the thing you’re trying to sell is exclusive and–here’s the important part–limited.

Note the example below:


What’s limited to the first 1900 responders? The ad never says, but clearly this deal could go away any moment. Creating urgency among an audience is often enough to push people off the fence. Of course this won’t work on people who aren’t very interested because they may (rightly) see this as a trick. But for those who are interested, this tactic can create satisfaction after the sale is complete. I am one of the lucky ones to have gotten this deal!


Similarly, the insider offer code creates an air of exclusivity. This isn’t just an ad; it’s an inside deal. Because you read National Geographic, you are part of a special club.

What’s most interesting about the offer code is that it potentially creates a barrier to entry for the customer. But that barrier is clearly outweighed by the sense of exclusivity, likely because it reassures customers that this isn’t a scam. By using a code, the customer really thinks that their deal is unique, when in fact I’m quite sure the sales people wouldn’t care if the customer actually lost that code–which more than anything else is designed to help their marketing department track leads for A/B testing.

Finally, just in case customers are worried that a direct response company might not be 100% wholesome, Stauer provides a pair of blue seals of approval (contrasting with the brown background) from the Best Business Bureau and Consumer Affairs.


Neither of these accreditations are particularly impressive, but again, they are the subtle nudge a customer might need to place their call to order.


Final Thoughts

I think any marketer can appreciate the multiple layers this ad operates on and why even though direct marketing is considered by many to be an outmoded marketing format, it still has a lot of lessons to share. We get so caught up in elegant digital and creative solutions to marketing problems, that we leverage those solutions on platforms where they are not as effective. Sometimes sales information is exactly what the customer wants. At that point, branded nonsense is harmful.

For instance, there are brand websites that look more like billboards than information hubs. There are print ads with no words and no meaningful information for the customer. There are point of sale merchandising products that do little to support purchase. The point of marketing is to make products and services more available to customers. At an awareness level, a creative core message is paramount. At a consideration level, there’s an argument to be had: this is why my product suits your needs.

There’s a good reason why I’ve devoted over 2000 words to the Stauer print ad.


  1. the right message
  2. for the right product
  3. in the right format
  4. for the right audience.

The marketing industry as a whole needs to examine work like this in addition to the Cannes winners because ultimately we’re in the business of making stuff more available to customers–wherever they are, whatever they’re doing. Good work doesn’t always call attention to itself.


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